In this 'journalistic' poem (see also d2_RolH_012), Rollock recounts the severe outbreak of plague that afflicted Edinburgh in 1585 and spread to several other towns in Scotland. The epidemic first appeared in July 1584 in the seaport of Wester Wemyss (probably carried by a ship that had visited Flanders, where the plague was rife at that time) and spread to several towns along the Forth and Tay, before arriving in Edinburgh in May 1585. It is estimated that the plague killed as much as ten percent of the population. The Edinburgh outbreak was apparently carried into the city by a woman from Perth, and the council put strict measures in place to try and contain it. No shelter was to be given to strangers or to cases of plague (the latter was made a capital offence), and stray animals were to be killed. As Rollock notes, the wealthy left the city in droves, and the town council recorded in December that 'the kirk is now destitute of elders and deacons', though Rollock suggests below that a team of eight men - four citizens and four councillors - took charge of dealing with the outbreak at the hazard of their own lives. An isolation centre for the victims was set up outside the city walls complete with a surgeon paid for by the city, which also ensured the care of children left homeless on the death of their parents (George C. Kohn (ed.), Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present (New York, 2008 edn), p. 94). Rollock attributes the descent of the plague on Scotland as a symbol of the nation's godlessness, and denounces those who flee it for their futile attempt to outrun God's wrath. However, the poem ends on a joyful note, with the clearing of the disease from the city. Metre: iambic couplet (strophe). This metre is used for Horace's first 10 Epodes. It is also the metre George Buchanan employs for the majority of his psalm paraphrases.
De peste Edinburgi & reliqua late Scotia grassante anno 1585 nania
De peste Edinburgi et reliqua late Scotia grassante anno 1585 nania
1Urbs, explicatis hinc et inde vallibus
quae monte regnas libero,
altumque ab arce tollis invicta caput,
Iunoniae instar alitis, 1
5utrinque costas pendulis tectis premens,
alisque tanquam protegens;
porrecto in usum publicae dorso viae
turba terendae civica,
radiante cauda definens in regiam,
10structura et hortis nobilem.
Urbs, alterum lumen Britannici soli,
flos civitatum, et unica
spes Scotticarum, dives incolis tuis
et copiosa convenis,
15beata largis quae beant orbem bonis,
aequis beata legibus,
in omne regnum lance quas didis pari
oraculum Arctoae plagae.
Faelix senatu regio, et faelix tuis
fortique semper praeditorum pectore
virtute faelix civium,
quam nec rebellem robur adversum Duces,
nec aequitas mollem facit.
25Sed ipsa tecum agone certas nobili,
legibus an armis clarior.
Dis urbs amica, et aucta Divum munere
tot parte ab omni commodis,
quo mœsta laese nunc laboras numine?
30Quae te ira caeli devovet? 2
Tuine pœnas, an parentum, an principum
solvis misella criminis,
in te minacis dira pestilentiae
dum fervet ac furit lues?
35Nec ambientum te corona mœnium
praestare sospitem potest,
[p373] nec excubantum perdius satellitum
pernoxque sudor; nec sagax
patrum senectus comminisci publicis
nec ardor in te regis arcem patriae
nec vota vigilis, quae suam, viciniae
salute metitur tua.
45Quippe est eritque semper irritus Deo
humanus invito labor.
Ab peste flagras, ut camino perpete
sicana moles aestuat;
olim doloso Nessus ut magni Herculis
50adussit artus munere;
ut ulta Colchis 3 efficaci est carmine
satam Creonte pellicem. 4
Ergo potentum profuga notos civium
linquunt penates agmina,
55abominati saeva morbi incendia,
Hic transmarino patriam vertit solo,
alter cavernis abditur
specus profundae, montis alius edito
60mandat salutem vertici,
pars septa fossis, aut inaccesso mari,
cinctuve saxorum latet.
Hinc tot capaces primitus mortalium
viduantur aedes incolis.
65Rarus viator compita et vicos premit,
assueta crebro saxa calcari pede;
domusque mœstae conticent
(nuper clientum asyla, et anchorae sacrae)
70de jure respondentium;
fervere nec aegris forum reis,
et officinas gemere de caelo suas
Astraea fertur obstrui.
75Egena plebes interim, assueto diu
[p374] indocilis avelli lare.
Contagioso suppetit seges malo,
auraeque vitio vescitur.
Quid egena plebes? Ecce quattuor viri
80et quotquot urbem dirigunt
decuriones; prae salute gnaviter
privam execrati publica.
Nil non laboris ut laborantem asserant
audent obire patriam,
85ultro suorum vel paciscentes suam
cum civium vita necem.
Et nec medentum mollit opera pharmacis
morbi furorem; nec thorum
anus ministra curat; aegritudinem
90nec fando fallit assidens
sodalis; agmen verba nec novissima
excipit amicum; nec viri
uxor, parentis aut supremum filius
morientis halitum legit.
95Exangue cum sic tandem et exanime jacet
cadaver obscœna nece,
iam non amictum veste lintea, et choro
pompam exequente lugubri,
mandatur urnae (tantus horror omnibus
100mali minacis ingruit)
sed corpus unco, per viae compendia
noctemque caecam; subtrahens
vespillo, hiantem trudit audax in scrobem
tetra Mephiti inamabilem.
105Exhausit urbem tanta strages civibus,
dominisque inanivit domus.
At quo, potentes et potentum liberi,
pernice cursu evaditis?
Animosne caelum mutat, aut mare abluit
110sordem inquinati pectoris?
Ille ille cladis auctor, et mundi arbiter,
cui nemo pendit integer
supplexve pœnas, nemo pœnas improbus
idemque contumax fugit.
[p375] 115Vos, transmarino Sole vertentes licet
solum parentum, et invia
montis repostos editi crepidine,
altave defossos specu,
cinctosve saxis, et lacunis amnium
120vastove inaccessis mari,
vos ille deprendet sagaci indagine,
lustrisque caecis exuet.
Et quas paratis debitas eludere
erroribus pœnas fuga,
125vindex retractis irrogabit nomine
Frustra igitur expugnare pugnamus luem,
aestumve morbi eludere,
vitium vel undis expiando et ignibus,
130vel terga mandando fugae.
Rodentis instar saxa quae torsit puer,
auctore neglecto canis,
dum fœda morbi causa venis insidet,
radice fœta pullulans;
135flagitia designare dum, inquam, pergimus,
fontes dolorum et fomites;
sancti unde proritamus iram numinis,
pœnasque diripimus polo;
pœnas facinorum ponderi quidem impares,
140intraque commissum leves,
plectente regum rege nos telo suo,
contage tetri spiritus.
Fatidicus olim rex quod optando fami
ferroque flagrum praetulit;
145quodque expiari criminum unica potest,
me vate pœnitentia.
Hac hac relictae orbis per oras, exules,
in limen urbis, auspice
redite postliminio. Et hac penatium
150quos urbe continuit amor
haurite ventos jam salubres. Vindice
152et peste victa, plaudite!
A mournful song on the plague at Edinburgh which also raged far and wide through the rest of Scotland in the year 1585
You city, who holds sway over the stretched out valleys on either side from your unbridled mount, and from your unconquered citadel you raise up high your head, just like Juno's all-seeing bird, a pressing your walls on all sides with your overhanging edifices, and jutting out as if with wings; with your spine spread out for the employment of a public byway to be trodden by the city's throng, you end with your tail unfurled at the royal palace renowned for its buildings and gardens. O city, the other bright eye of Britain, b the flower of cities, and the only repository of hope for Scottish cities, you cultivate riches for your people, and you assemble abundance, you endow prosperity which blesses the world with goods, blessed yourself with just laws, which as oracle you distribute on equal scale for the whole kingdom of the Northern region. Blessed with your royal court, and also blessed in your counsellors, and ever blessed with the stout hearts of citizens endowed with virtue, which neither strength makes rebellious towards its rulers, nor justice make soft. But you vie with yourself in a noble contest, outstanding whether in laws or arms. O city, friend to the Gods, and who has been endowed by the Gods' gift with so many advantages in all respects, by which divinity have you been sadly attacked, through whom you now toil? What anger from heaven bewitches you? Do you wretchedly pay the price for your own misdeed, or your forefathers, or your prince, as the grim plague of a threatening pestilence seethes and rages against you? And the crown of walls surrounding you cannot keep you safe, [p373] nor can the daily and nightly efforts of vigilant attendants; nor can the wise old age of the elders c devise any relief from public sorrows, nor can the king's love for you devise a citadel for the country and a fortress for the people; nor can it determine through your health the prayers of a heedful neighbourhood, which looks to its own. For truly human effort is and will always be pointless to an unwilling God. Alas you burn with plague, as its dry power rages in an unending furnace; just as Nessus once scorched the limbs of mighty Hercules with his grief-bringing gift; d just as Medea took revenge upon her rival, born of Creon, with a powerful spell. Consequently the fleeing troop of powerful citizens leave behind their familiar national gods, and the wicked conflagrations of an accursed disease, and the inexorable plague. This man trades his fatherland for a new land across the sea, another hides in the caverns of a deep chasm, one further still entrusts his safety to the lofty peak of a mountain, some hide surrounded by ditches, either with inaccessible water, or an enclosure of rocks. Hence for the first time so many large dwellings of men are deprived of their inhabitants. Rarely does the traveller press upon the crossroads and villages, and the rocks accustomed to be trod upon by repeated footfall grow fearful in their loneliness; and the sad houses fall silent (which recently were the refuges of devotees and sacred hope) from the advice of the oracles; Nor does the forum seethe with anxious clients, and with those skilled in laws; and Astraea is heard bewailing from heaven that her own workshops have seized production. The plebs meanwhile are destitute, ill-suited to be parted [p374] from their long-accustomed home. Their cornfields are exposed to a contagious evil, and they feed upon the air's imperfection. Why are the plebs destitute? Behold four men and as many counsellors directing the city; zealously have they taken a solemn oath on behalf of the public health. They dare to undertake any task in order to free the fatherland in its travails, even voluntarily bargaining their own death with the life of their citizens. And nor does the work of physicians soften the fury of the disease for the condemned; nor does the ministering matron heal the tumor; nor through incantation does her attendant helper cheat the sickness; nor does a friendly crowd receive the last words; neither does the wife catch her dying husband's final breath, nor does the son his dying parent's. When thus finally the body lies lifeless and bloodless in ominous death, it is not then surrounded by a linen shroud, and a mourning chorus following the procession, but the body is committed to the urn (such a dread of the menacing evil attacks all) by a hook, through the shortest route and in the dark of night; a corpse-bearer drags it, and boldly thrusts it into a gaping ditch stinking with foul sulphurous vapours. Such carnage emptied the city of its citizens and cleared houses of their masters. Yet where, o nobles and children of nobles, do you escape to on your swift course? Does heaven alter your souls, or does the sea wash away the squalor of a corrupted heart? He is that creator of destruction, the world's judge, from whom no one honest and penitent suffers retribution, and likewise no one wicked and insolent escapes his retribution. [p375] You, although fleeing the land of your fathers for a foreign sun, and deposited on the pathless edge of a mountain's peak, or hidden in a deep chasm, or surrounded by rocks, and by the inaccessible expanses of the currents on the vast sea, he will hunt down with a keen-witted search, and rip you out from your dark burrow. And the punishments owed to your sins which you attempt to elude in flight, the avenger will demand in much harsher form than what was owed for the fugitives. Therefore in vain do we strive to overcome the plague, or to elude the fire of the sickness, or by averting the evil with water and flame, or consigning ourselves to flight. Just like the dog licking the stones which the boy threw while ignoring his creator. e while the foul cause of the disease settles in the veins, and burst forth from the root; while, I say, we eagerly proceed to contrive foul deeds, the source and kindle of our woes; thus do we incite the anger of the holy divinity, and strive for punishments from heaven; punishment for deeds truly unequal to their gravity, and during the crime trifling, as the king of kings punishes us with his own spear, with the loathsome touch of breath. But once the prophesising king preferred the whip to famine and the sword; and now only repentance can atone for any sins, as I understand it. By this route, exiles, return across the lands of the world to the threshold of the city you left behind, enjoying the protection of your former rights. And by this route drink in the now healthy winds which the love of the household gods has preserved in the city. Applaud, for the avenging plague has been overcome!
1: Ovid, Amores II.6.55
2: This and the previous line: Virgil, Aeneid I.8-11
3: Medea is referred to by this epithet at Horace, Epodes XVI.58
4: Horace, Epodes V.63-5
a: The peacock, whose feathers were covered with 'eyes' through which Juno was able to watch mortal affairs.
b: The other being London.
c: The town council.
d: A centaur who was killed by Hercules; when dying, he told Hercules' wife Deianeira that if she ever doubted her husband's love, a robe smeared with Nessus's blood would ensure his constancy. Deianeira followed this advice, but the centaur's blood was a poison that consumed Hercules with fire.
e: This reference is unclear.